A TORY defence minister was last night accused of an “implicit” attack on hundreds of workers who face losing their jobs at a Newcastle tank factory.
Peter Luff claimed defence company BAE Systems, which owns the Scotswood Road factory, was to blame for 330 job losses with the closure of the site because it was “uncompetitive” and failed to win key contracts.
Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah said that was an “implicit” attack on the workers as the minister failed to initially respond to her request in Parliament for a meeting with her and a delegation from BAE to discuss how jobs could be saved. She later posted a message on social network Twitter to say the minister had agreed to a meeting.
The developments come after BAE announced the closure of the former Vickers factory at the start of June, along with 100 job losses at its Washington site.
Making the announcement, BAE said it could see no foreseeable manufacturing work at Newcastle beyond completion of Terrier armoured engineer vehicle production at the end of next year.
Ministers from the current coalition Government and the previous Labour administration have rejected pleas from unions and local MPs for new contracts to be awarded. Speaking in the House of Commons, Ms Onwurah challenged the Government about the future of the site and urged them to help keep it open.
“Over recess, BAE Systems announced the closure of the historic Scotswood Road site in Newcastle with the loss of over 300 jobs. This brings to an end a 165-year history of skilled engineering, the longest continuous site of tank manufacture anywhere in the world, as well as bringing great distress and uncertainty to my constituents.
“Would the minister agree that refusing to take into account the wider economic implications of defence procurement not only undermines innovation, but jobs and communities across the country?
“And would he further agree to meet with me and a delegation from BAE to see what can be done to save the site.”
Mr Luff said he had “enormous respect” for the Labour MP’s expressions of concern for her constituents, adding: “I would like also to pay tribute to the work those people have done over many years to support the Armed Forces.
“However, it is not true to say that the policy she describes is the cause of the problem. The problem is that BAE Systems has not won contracts for this particular site.”
He added other programmes had secured thousands of highly skilled jobs around the UK. “I very much regret BAE Systems has been uncompetitive.
“But I am afraid it is not the fault of the Government. It is the company that must answer why it couldn’t actually be successful in these contracts,” said Mr Luff.
Speaking later, Ms Onwurah said: “He is not taking responsibility not only for the site and the people’s jobs but for the skills that are irreplaceable there and an essential part of our defence future.”
The Labour MP also confirmed that Mr Luff had agreed to hold a joint meeting with the Department for Business to discuss the future of the site.
And she added that Mr Luff had said that it was not an attack on workers at the Scotswood Road site, who, he thought, worked exceptionally hard.
BAE Systems declined to respond to the minister’s comments, but set out the reasoning behind closing the site.
“We need to adapt to very challenging market conditions and further reduce our overheads to drive better value for our customers and increase our competitiveness in the export markets,” said the company.